Special Report: Beto O’Rourke’s secret membership in a legendary hacking group
SAN FRANCISCO(Reuters) – Some things you might know about Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who just entered the race for president:
* The Democratic contender raised a record amount for a U.S. Senate race in 2018 and almost beat the incumbent in a Republican stronghold, without hiding his support for gun control and Black Lives Matter protests on the football field.
* When he was younger, he was arrested on drunk-driving charges and played in a punk band. Now 46, he still skateboards.
* The charismatic politician with the Kennedy smile is liberal on some issues and libertarian on others, which could allow him to cross the country’s political divide.
One thing you didn’t know: While a teenager, O’Rourke acknowledged in an exclusive interview, he belonged to the oldest group of computer hackers in U.S. history.
Members of the hugely influential Cult of the Dead Cow, jokingly named after an abandoned Texas slaughterhouse, have protected his secret for decades, reluctant to compromise his political viability.
Now, in a series of interviews, CDC members have acknowledged O’Rourke as one of their own. In all, more than a dozen members of the group agreed to be named for the first time in a book about the hacking group by this reporter that is scheduled to be published in June by Public Affairs. O’Rourke was interviewed early in his run for the Senate.
O’Rourke’s membership in the group – notorious for releasing tools that allowed ordinary people to hack computers running Microsoft’s Windows, and also known for inventing the word “hacktivism” to describe human-rights-driven security work – could explain his approach to politics better than anything on his resume. His background in hacking circles has repeatedly informed his strategy as he explored and subverted established procedures in technology, the media and government.
“There’s just this profound value in being able to be apart from the system and look at it critically and have fun while you’re doing it,” O’Rourke said. “I think of the Cult of the Dead Cow as a great example of that.”
An ex-hacker running for national office would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. But that was before two national elections sent people from other nontraditional backgrounds to the White House and Congress, many of them vowing to blow up the status quo.
Arguably, there has been no better time to be an American politician rebelling against business as usual. There is no indication that O’Rourke himself ever engaged in the edgiest sorts of hacking activity – breaking into computers or writing code that enabled others to do so. Still, it’s unclear whether the United States is ready for a presidential contender who, as a teenager, stole long-distance phone service for his dial-up modem, wrote a murder fantasy in which the narrator drives over children on the street, and mused about a society without money.
THE ERA OF MODEMS AND BULLETIN BOARDS
O’Rourke was a misfit teen in El Paso, Texas, in the 1980s when he decided to seek out bulletin board systems – the online discussion forums that at the time were the best electronic means for connecting people outside the local school, church and neighborhood.
“When Dad bought an Apple IIe and a 300-baud modem and I started to get on boards, it was the Facebook of its day,” he said. “You just wanted to be part of a community.”
O’Rourke soon started his own board, TacoLand, which was freewheeling and largely about punk music. “This was the counterculture: Maximum Rock & Roll [magazine], buying records by catalog you couldn’t find at record stores,” he said.
He then connected with another young hacker in the more conservative Texas city of Lubbock who ran a bulletin board called Demon Roach Underground. Known online as Swamp Rat, Kevin Wheeler had recently moved from a university town in Ohio and was having problems adjusting to life in Texas.
Like O’Rourke, Wheeler said, he was hunting for video games that had been “cracked,” or stripped from digital rights protections, so that he could play them for free on his Apple. Also like O’Rourke, Wheeler wanted to find other teens who enjoyed the same things, and to write and share funny and profane stories that their parents and conservative neighbors wouldn’t appreciate. It was good-natured resistance to the repressive humdrum around them, a sort of “Footloose” for those just discovering the new world of computers.
Wheeler and a friend named the Cult of the Dead Cow after an eerie hangout, a shut-down Lubbock slaughterhouse – the unappealing hind part of Texas’ iconic cattle industry. Most CDC members kept control of their own bulletin boards while referring visitors to one another’s and distributing the CDC’s own branded essays, called text files or t-files.
At the time, people connected to bulletin boards by dialing in to the phone lines through a modem. Heavy use of long-distance modem calls could add up to hundreds of dollars a month. Savvy teens learned techniques for getting around the charges, such as using other peoples’ phone-company credit card numbers and five-digit calling codes to place free calls.
O’Rourke didn’t say what techniques he used. Like thousands of others, though, he said he pilfered long-distance service “so I wouldn’t run up the phone bill.”
Under Texas law, stealing long-distance service worth less than $1,500 is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine. More than that is a felony, and could result in jail time. It is unclear whether O’Rourke topped that threshold. In any event, the state bars prosecution of the offense for those under 17, as O’Rourke was for most of his active time in the group, and the statute of limitations is five years. Two Cult of the Dead Cow contemporaries in Texas who were caught misusing calling cards as minors got off with warnings.
O’Rourke handed off control of his own board when he moved east for boarding school, and he said he stopped participating on the hidden CDC board after he enrolled at Columbia University at age 18.
Hana Callaghan, a government specialist at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said that voters might want to consider both the gravity of any candidate’s offenses and the person’s age at the time.
Among the questions voters should ask, she said: “What was the violation? Was it egregious? What does it say about their character – do they believe the rules don’t apply to them?” If substantial time has passed, she added, voters should decide whether the person “learned the error of their ways and no longer engages in those kind of behavior.”
When he was a teen, O’Rourke also frequented sites that offered cracked software. The bulletin boards were “a great way to get cracked games,” O’Rourke said, adding that he later realized his habit wasn’t morally defensible and stopped.
Using pirated software violates copyright laws, attorneys say, but in practice, software companies have rarely sued young people over it. When they do go after someone, it is typically an employer with workers using multiple unlicensed copies. Software providers are more interested in those who break the protections and spread their wares.
CDC wasn’t of that ilk. Although some CDC essays gave programming and hacking instructions, in the late 1980s, the group was more about writing than it was about breaking into computer systems.
But its focus on creative expression didn’t mean there were no grounds for controversy. Like many an underground newspaper, the Cult of the Dead Cow avidly pursued it.
A CDC member who joined in the early 1990s had previously used real instructions for making a pipe bomb to joke about shedding pounds by losing limbs. Three teenagers in Montreal found the file, and one lost two fingers after he tried to follow the formula, prompting outrage.
Rather than remove similar posts and hide the group’s history, the CDC warned readers not to take the files literally and added a disclaimer that survives on its current web page: “Warning: This site may contain explicit descriptions of or advocate one or more of the following: adultery, murder, morbid violence, bad grammar, deviant sexual conduct in violent contexts, or the consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs.”
GRABBING MEDIA ATTENTION
O’Rourke and his old friends say his stint as a fledgling hacker fed into his subsequent work in El Paso as a software entrepreneur and alternative press publisher, which led in turn to successful long-shot runs at the city council and then Congress, where he unseated an incumbent Democrat.
Politically, O’Rourke has taken some conventional liberal positions, supporting abortion rights and opposing a wall on the Mexican border. But he takes a libertarian view on other issues, faulting excessive regulation and siding with businesses in congressional votes on financial industry oversight and taxes.
His more conservative positions have drawn fire from Democrats who see him as too friendly with Republicans and corporations. His more progressive votes and punk-rock past helped his recent opponent, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, portray O’Rourke as too radical for socially conservative Texas.
But the political balance allows him to appeal to both main strands of political thought in Silicon Valley – a key source of campaign money and cultural influence.
O’Rourke credits the Cult of the Dead Cow with developing his thinking in a number of ways. Not least, he fought to restore net neutrality, the principle which prevented internet providers from favoring some content over others.
Enthusiastically supported by large tech companies and consumer groups, net neutrality was formally adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015. The major telecommunications companies argued that it limited their ability to offer new services to content providers, and under the Trump Administration, the FCC overturned the policy in 2017. An attempt to legislate its reinstatement failed last year, although tech trade groups are still trying in court.
Hackers generally support net neutrality as part of a broader worldview that the free flow of information is necessary and good.
“I understand the democratizing power of the internet, and how transformative it was for me personally, and how it leveraged the extraordinary intelligence of these people all over the country who were sharing ideas and techniques,” O’Rourke said.
“When you compromise the ability to treat all that equally, it runs counter to the ethics of the groups we were part of. And factually, you can just see that it will harm small-business development and growth. It hampers the ability to share what you are creating, whether it is an essay, a song, a piece of art.”
O’Rourke’s generation of hackers, and the Cult of the Dead Cow in particular, also thought deeply about how to grab media and public attention for a cause or a laugh. Group members, for instance, tossed raw meat from a Las Vegas stage, distributed an essay called “Sex with Satan” and falsely claimed the ability to hack satellites.
That media sense echoes in O’Rourke’s political life.
As a congressman in 2016, while he and others were holding a sit-in at the House of Representatives to force a floor debate on gun control, the Republican Speaker, Paul Ryan, called a recess. That invoked the congressional rule that C-SPAN can’t broadcast from its House cameras when the chamber isn’t in session.
So O’Rourke began broadcasting the protest from his phone over Facebook, and the network aired that instead. The stunt drew attention to the majority party’s refusal to deliberate on the issue, and it showed O’Rourke’s willingness to upend convention.
During last year’s Senate campaign, O’Rourke’s staff took videos of him interacting with voters all over the state, editing several that went viral on social media. That helped O’Rourke raise more money than any Senate candidate in history despite refusing donations from political action committees. While losing his race by less than three percentage points, he drew in new voters and helped flip House seats and other races down the ticket.
While considering a presidential run, O’Rourke has gone on a multistate road trip and posted videos of everyday activities, even including a dental visit.
“Part of my success was being exposed to people who thought differently and explored how things work,” O’Rourke said in the interview. “There are alternate paths to service and success, and it’s important to be mindful of that.”
THE WRITINGS OF ‘PSYCHEDELIC WARLORD’
O’Rourke, too, thought differently. His CDC writing from nearly three decades ago, under the handle “Psychedelic Warlord,” remains online.
One article he wrote as a teen mused how the world would work without money. After changing the system, including the government, O’Rourke foresaw the end of starvation and class distinctions.
“To achieve a money-less society (or have a society where money is heavily de-emphasized) a lot of things would have to change, including government as we know it. This is where the anti-money group and the disciples of Anarchy meet,” O’Rourke wrote under his pseudonym. “I fear we will always have a system of government, one way or another, so we would have to use other means other than totally toppling the government (I don’t think the masses would support such a radical move at this time).”
Another t-file from O’Rourke, written when he was 15, is a short and disturbing piece of fiction. “One day, as I was driving home from work, I noticed two children crossing the street. They were happy, happy to be free from their troubles…. This happiness was mine by right. I had earned it in my dreams.
“As I neared the young ones, I put all my weight on my right foot, keeping the accelerator pedal on the floor until I heard the crashing of the two children on the hood, and then the sharp cry of pain from one of the two. I was so fascinated for a moment, that when after I had stopped my vehicle, I just sat in a daze, sweet visions filling my head.”
In another piece, he took on a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi who maintained that Hitler was misunderstood and didn’t personally want Jews killed. O’Rourke and a Jewish friend questioned the man about his theories and let him ramble about Jews and African Americans, an attempt to let him hang himself with his own words.
“We were trying to see what made him think the horrible things that he did,” he wrote in the file.
O’Rourke added that if readers wanted to learn more about the subject’s Aryan church, they could write to the man’s post office box in El Paso.
“Surely,” O’Rourke wrote, “they’d appreciate some ‘fan’ mail.”
A RARE WOMAN IN THE HACKER WORLD
In addition to critiquing racism, O’Rourke tried to do something about sexism in the male-dominated world of hacking.
O’Rourke befriended a 16-year-old California girl who was a regular on TacoLand, and he put her up for membership in the CDC. With Wheeler’s approval, she got in, making the CDC one of a very few hacker groups of the time that weren’t all-male.
“I joined happily, honored, and proceeded to write crappy, horrific, 16-year-old bloody t-files,” Carrie Campbell wrote to friends in the group 20 years later. “I loved the community of smart people (and their girlfriends) to converse with and bounce ideas off of. The acceptance of my female gender is extremely rare in the hacker scene and I appreciate it…Somehow I ended up purely by accident as the only girl in the world’s most notorious hacker group.”
Wheeler kept the Cult of the Dead Cow small, with no more than 20 active members at a time and about 50 over the group’s life. It continues today. The vast majority have remained anonymous, though most of the core participants agreed to identify themselves for the forthcoming book, called “Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World.” Campbell and Wheeler were two of those who agreed to be identified as CDC members for the first time.
During O’Rourke’s active period, “we weren’t deliberately looking for hacking chops,” Wheeler said. “It was very much about personality and writing, really. For a long time, the ‘test,’ or evaluation, was to write t-files. Everyone was expected to write things. If we were stoked to have more hacker-oriented people, it was because we’d be excited to have a broader range in our t-files.”
O’Rourke wrote a few more essays before entering Columbia in 1991. The introduction of internet service providers and Web browsers in the mid-1990s wiped out most bulletin boards, but the CDC lived on.
Its writing moved to web pages that were hosted for years by a famed Boston hacking collective called the L0pht, with which the CDC shared four members, including Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, future head of the cyber security mission at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is the Pentagon skunk works created after Sputnik to create “strategic surprise” in international conflict, and it had launched the forerunner to today’s internet.
O’Rourke saw other members socially until at least 1997, just as the Cult of the Dead Cow was ramping up a run of five or six years as the most famous group of its kind.
“I was really at the margins, but I very much wanted to be as cool as these people, as sophisticated and technologically proficient and aware and smart as they were,” he said in the interview. “I never was, but it meant so much just being able to be a part of something with them…understanding how the world worked – literally how it worked, how the phone system worked and how we were all connected to each other.”
At the hacker conference Def Con in 1998 and 1999, donning costumes and rapping to a light show, the CDC released two tools to hack into computers running Windows. Back Orifice and its sequel Back Orifice 2000 were condemned as reckless by some. But the idea was to cause enough chaos and scrutiny to force Microsoft to work harder to secure its products, and the stunts worked, company veterans and outside security experts said.
Like O’Rourke, not everyone in the CDC pursued careers in the computer industry. Wheeler ran music venues in Texas and produced records in New York before turning to currency trading. Campbell is a freelance researcher near Seattle.
When Campbell left the email group for CDC members in 2006, she asked everyone to keep O’Rourke’s identity secret, because he had just been elected to the El Paso city council.
They did so, and a few stepped up in late 2017 and early 2018 to hold some of O’Rourke’s earliest out-of-state fundraisers for the Senate race. The first in San Francisco was co-hosted by CDC member Adam O’Donnell, an entrepreneur and a security engineer at Cisco Systems, and Alex Stamos, then the chief security officer at Facebook, who had worked under CDC members at a security provider in the previous decade.
Both said that technology was playing an increasingly fundamental role in national and personal security, the economy and everyday life, and that O’Rourke’s background in the industry, no matter how unconventional, would be a huge advantage in office.
“It’s really exciting,” Stamos said. “I have to support this guy, someone who has been active in this world since he was a teenager.”
Chris Wysopal, a L0pht veteran who founded tech company Veracode with a friend from the CDC, said he had been happily surprised to hear last year of O’Rourke’s history.
“We need people at his level who come from the hacking community and get it,” Wysopal said. “But it’s rare to see someone from that background have the leadership and communications skills. It’s hard to believe that we might even see a hacker run for president.”
Back during one of his college summers, O’Rourke crashed at Carrie Campbell’s house when his punk band toured her area. She saw him in 1997, too, when he was working at a New York internet provider and the CDC came to the Hackers on Planet Earth conference.
The next time was two decades later, at a Seattle fundraiser for the Senate race. O’Rourke singled her out in the crowd and told everyone she was a great person who didn’t complain that his band once had eaten all her cereal. But there was one thing he didn’t mention: how they met.
(This article is adapted from a forthcoming book by Reuters reporter Joseph Menn: “Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World”.)
Reported by Joseph Menn. Edited by Kari Howard